Just about everyone in the world has at some point attempted to play a guitar, bashed around on some drums, or at the very least sung along to their favourite song. The same cannot be said for vinyl decks; and it was this I was most worried would prove to be DJ Hero’s Achilles heel. I was wrong. In true Hero fashion the game shatters the barriers to entry, making it not only surprisingly intuitive to play, but seriously enjoyable from the moment you begin.
There’s no denying that the release of so many Guitar Hero games has meant improvements (shy, perhaps, of the microphone and drums) have been relatively minor. Ultimately, you’re still playing the same guitar in the same way to what may as well be the same music. DJ Hero, however, blasts fresh, accessible (and metaphorical) air in the face of what is fast becoming a stale genre. The music alone is so rich in variety and so vastly different from the standard band sound that, when coupled with the new turn-table controller, you get consumed by the experience.
Fans of the Hero franchise will be familiar with the set up, but even newcomers will get their heads around DJ Hero with relative ease. Grandmaster Flash (a real life superstar DJ) is your host for the tutorial, and although his patronising voice grates during his 20-odd minutes of instruction, you will come away wondering how you would have ever managed without it. Even cocky musical know-it-alls would do well to pay attention.
Sadly you won’t be creating your own DJ, though that didn’t stop us having a bit too much fun coming up with such unforgettable titles as DJ Jugs-A-Poppin’ and DJ Moose Knuckle just for fun. Instead you slowly unlock a mix of fictional and famous DJs based on your success with the various tracks. You’re awarded stars (up to five if you really nail the mix), and it’s these that accumulate to unlock all the new items such as outfits, decks, headphones, performance venues, and most importantly DJ sets (groups of tracks).
There are 24 sets in total. Each houses between two and six mixes. Most include a Bonus Beat that can be unlocked if you get over three stars on at least a few of the songs – nothing particularly challenging on all but the hardest setting. Tunes in a set roll in one after the other without any loading, keeping the music playing almost constantly. Changing up the difficulty won’t kick you back to the menus, either. Instead the game drops you back at the beginning of the mix. A sizeable chunk of these mixes have been lovingly crafted by the likes of DJ Shadow, DJ Yoda, Daft Punk and DJ Jazzy Jeff, but most have been produced in-house by FreeStyleGames. Fear not though – the quality of their rhythmic creations easily matches anything you would find on a retail album.
Roughly every second set is produced by one of the contributing DJs, and you’ll be defaulted to playing as their character in-game. The Bonus Beats at the end of these sets are specially designed to reflect their style. My highlight is the Daft Punk Megamix, which mashes together about eight or nine of their more famous works into some kind of amalgamated chunk of awesome.
DJ Hero boasts an impressive 93 original mixes with over 100 licensed music tracks, but you won’t fail to notice a few of these tracks pop up in mixes more often than others. Gorillaz’ Feel Good Inc seems blended with just about everything, although I must admit the mix with Marvin Gaye’s Through the Grape Vine is one of the best tracks DJ Hero has to offer. I don’t usually get into rhythm games to the point where I feel compelled to do more than tap my feet, but after about an hour of playing DJ Hero I noticed that I was full-on dancing to some of the more techno/electronic mixes. Credit must go to several of the tunes that managed to get the team listening and playing. Some, even, got several repeated requests.
It’s pretty easy to dance around with a plastic guitar resting firmly in your grip; it’s quite another thing head-banging over the top of some decks. Quite simply, you button press and scratch with your right hand (assuming you’re right handed of course) and switch the cross fader, turn the effects dial and press the Euphoria button with the left. Nailing the Perfect sections of a mix will award you Euphoria. This can then be unleashed to double your current multiplier; up to a maximum of times eight. Keeping a spotless run going will also bag you Rewinds. These can be used at any point by spinning the turn table back 360 degrees, dropping you back into the mix at an earlier point. I used it when I screwed up a Perfect section; it allowed me to retry and collect that precious Euphoria. Playing DJ Hero is threatening at first, but the learning curve is shallower than you might expect.
Each difficulty level adds something new. At Beginner you can press any of the turntable buttons with just a hint of scratching. This works all the way up to Hard. But at Expert you may as well be performing on real decks. You’d have to have the rhythmic timing of a sponge to need to start on Beginner – you don’t get a full sense of what DJ Hero is about until at least Medium. Here you’ll be using all the buttons, a bit of cross fading, scribble scratching, the effects dial and Euphoria button. Your actual movement of the turn table triggers the scratch sound regardless of how far and how fast you do it. At the hardest difficulties, you’ll be expected to follow specific directions that correlate with the recording. It can be insanely hard, but you can’t get much closer to the real deal than that.
The problem that most people will initially encounter is finding the cross fader’s centre spot. It’s all too easy to sail clean over it, rendering all your other actions useless. Mastering this is essential to sounding good and looking cool. Somewhat surprisingly, everything else falls into place: timing button presses, throwing in effects of your own on the centre track and finding the right amount of scratch so that the buttons don’t fly out from under your fingers. You are forgiven any mistakes, as you can’t fail a song. DJ Hero is about keeping the music playing, not pressuring you to get it right. Throwing in your own effects at certain points seems like a great way to personalise a track, but more often than not it simply dumps poorly timed junk in what would otherwise be an excellent musical experience. I stopped freestyling with the effects button; there are only so many times you can hear “Yeah Boyee!” before it becomes painful.
Playing non-stop makes your feet, if you’re standing up of course, and your scratching arm, sore pretty quickly. Thankfully the peripheral sits comfortably in your lap. Left-handed gamers can switch the mixing deck with the turntable deck, but be warned that the game won’t pause if the two are parted mid-song. On more than one occasion I wondered why I sucked more than usual only to find the two sections had come apart.
DJ Hero is without doubt designed with a party atmosphere in mind. I can’t talk up the quality of the music enough. It might be more scratch and effects heavy than normal retail music of the genre, but you’ll crank it up nonetheless. Custom set lists of up to eight mixes can be queued up and set to Party Play mode, allowing the game to take the reins for you and give you the option to dive right in whenever you fancy it. It must be said that this option is not made glaringly obvious: it’s hidden away in the loading screen hints and tips. The menu system as a whole comes across as clumsy. It’s filled with colour and graffiti. Functionality, clearly, wasn’t a priority.
Multiplayer is limited to a local and online DJ versus DJ mode, where two players play the same track in a straight up points battle. If you have a Guitar Hero controller lying around then you can jump in for some DJ/rockstar cooperative action. There are only eight mixes available in this mode, however, and you have to play through the game before they unlock. Overall you can’t help but feel that the multiplayer elements have the most room to grow, especially as this game was designed for the most social of environments.
DJ Hero is possibly the best rhythm action game I have ever played. There’s not a dull track in the entire game – hardly surprising given how much superstar DJ input FreeStyleGames has enjoyed. It may still be finding its feet in the world, and it certainly has room to improve, but for a first effort it’s managed to do almost everything right. If you have a moment to glance up from the rolling vinyl highway you’ll see Daft Punk pulling out all the moves you’d expect from a real set, you’ll see the characters scratching along exactly to the sound of the mix, and you’ll see a vast audience; an audience whose world you really feel you are rocking.